Finding a Medical School Research Project and Mentor

Ted O'Connell, MD and Bryce Hwang, MD


Over the course of four years of medical school, medical students have many pressures on their time, have competing priorities, and may want to pursue multiple extracurricular opportunities. Most also only have one summer vacation. This time may be well spent interacting with family and friends, traveling to different parts of the world, or just decompressing and not studying. However, as the residency match process becomes more competitive and the number of applicants grows, you may want to use a portion of your summer vacation to pursue your medical interests and enhance your residency application.

One of the more popular options for spending a productive summer is doing research. The number of medical students participating in some form of research is growing, and research has become an important component of medical education. In addition, research can be a great opportunity to learn something outside of the formal medical school curriculum while also strengthening your credentials. The following suggestions can be helpful for any medical student considering research.


Start Early

The importance of starting early cannot be overstated. What does starting early mean? You should begin thinking about what field research you might want to focus on even prior to matriculating into medical school, and then start reaching out to potential mentors once school starts. This will show the mentor that you are organized, prepared, serious, and really interested in working with him/her. Many students wait until the last minute and rush to get involved in research projects unrelated to their true interests.


Research, Research, Research

Understanding your options is essential to finding the right research project and mentor. At first glance, stem cell research may sound very interesting, but take the time to look at other options (unless stem cell research really is your passion). You will be surprised by what your school and external institutions have to offer. Choose carefully where you want to do your research. Do you want to stay at your home medical school or do you want to go to a different part of the country? Some of this decision may reflect the type of research you want to do, though you should also consider the costs of being in a different part of the country as well as logistical challenges. You should also be aware that external programs may have earlier application deadlines, which will require more planning when it comes for filling out applications and securing letters of recommendation.

After narrowing down the list of potential mentors, study their previous work and read some of their publications, if possible. That way, when you meet your mentor, you will be prepared to answer any questions they may have as well as be able to ask them questions about their research projects. This will help make a great first impression.


Know Your Field of Specialty

Engaging in research in the specialty you think you want to pursue is advantageous in terms of fueling your own passions, developing your career, and strengthening your curriculum vitae. Even if you have not yet decided on a particular specialty, try to find a project and mentor in a field that you think you might want to pursue. This will help you get a better understanding of that field of medicine and also ensures that your research “makes sense” when it comes time to apply for residency programs.

In addition to doing research, you will have the opportunity to develop a close relationship with your mentor. During preclinical years, students are often limited in terms of interacting with physicians in a variety of clinical specialties. You may get a lecture from a pediatric surgeon or dermatologist, but close interaction with those physicians typically does not occur until third year rotations begin. By doing research and doing it in your field of interest, you will gain exposure to that specialty and get to meet other people in the same field. This is a great opportunity to network, get to understand the specialty in greater detail, and perhaps even get a letter of recommendation.


Dress to Impress

After securing a meeting or interview with your potential mentor, dress professionally as you would for any other interview. Just like at medical school interviews, you want to portray a positive image when meeting your future mentor. As a general rule, being overdressed is better than being underdressed. Acceptable interview tire for women includes a dressy shirt paired with tailored pants or a pencil skirt. For men, a collared shirt, a tie, and neat slacks are appropriate. Both men and women may consider wearing a suit or even a white coat if the situation calls for it. Whether you are male or female, you should wear a nice pair of leather shoes. In some cases, you may be asked to do a working interview in which you may shadow your potential mentor. If this will be a working interview, simply ask your interviewer how they would prefer that you dress.


Take Notes and Follow-Up After the Interview

Consider bringing a notebook to the interview. Your research mentor may discuss past experiences, ongoing projects, or future plans. Taking notes will let your potential mentor know that you are interested and will help you remember the topics of conversation. If your potential mentor offers you an opportunity for research on the spot, you should follow-up with an email expressing your gratitude and working out details of when you will start on the project and any other pertinent details. If your potential mentor does not immediately offer an opportunity, you should write a follow-up email expressing your interest in being part of the project. Even if you decide that you are not interested in working with this particular researcher, you should write a thank you note or email. This person invested his or her time with you, and you never know when you might cross paths again, so being polite and professional is just the right thing to do.